In mock council meeting, Howard County students explore causes of Ellicott City flood

Sitting in a dimly lit room cordoned off from the public, teenage climatologists, developers, city planners, environmentalists, shop owners and other stakeholders debated a key question: Was the Ellicott City flood in July preventable?

No consensus surfaced at Tuesday's backdoor meeting as students from Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City simulated a mock county council meeting by playing the roles of community stakeholders.

The discussion capped weeks of student-led research and analysis on July's flood, which swept dozens of Main Street businesses into ruin, caused millions of dollars in damages and killed two people. The county has launched a series of public charettes to begin long-term recovery planning. Studies expected in the middle of next year will define what caused the flood.

Ainsley Sowers echoed the sentiments of many students who, despite posing solutions like more stormwater management and scaling back development, agreed community input was necessary to prevent future flooding.

"It's not just one problem or just one group of people. Everyone has to do something because we are going to flood again," Sowers said, speaking in her role as an environmentalist.

For Sowers, the mock simulation was personal.

Her father owns Little French Market on Main Street, one of several businesses pummeled by the flood. The tiny cafe, nestled behind a parking lot submerged in water the night of the flood, is now open.

The Mount Hebron project, led by the Howard County Conservancy and funded by a federal grant, is part of a year-long study of the area's watersheds by local high schools. Students will present the results of their case study of the Ellicott City flood before county officials at a watershed summit in April, along with their grades on the health of the area's watersheds, streams and school yards.

"The flood provided the perfect opportunity for this ongoing project," said Meg Boyd, executive director of the conservancy. "We've flipped the tables. The students are now in the advocacy position."

The student-led discussion echoed actual discussions between the public and private sector, said Mike Hinson, of the county's Office of Emergency Management.

"I wish our private meetings were so civil," Hinson said.

At the student debate, a coalition of city planners and developers pushed environmentalists and shop owners to recognize development in the area was not at fault as they proposed to halt future renovations and development until the county develops a plan to manage the issue.

Climatologist Lynzee Loudon pointed to climate change as a major factor. City planner Aditya Krishna advocated for smart development and called for more vertical development like town houses and garages — a change that departs from old Ellicott City's 244-year-old history.

The suggestion drew critique from Caroline Pearce, who staked a neutral role as a student in the discussion. Pearce championed Ellicott City's history as a significant economic draw for the county.

"You're putting sentiment over safety," said Manoj Kolagani, a Mount Hebron High School student speaking in the role of a city planner.

Hinson said the community's emotional attachment to old Ellicott City was a major challenge.

But the county employee declined to delve into the cause of the flood.

"I won't touch that. … I like my job," Hinson joked.

Students proposed fixes like replacing impervious surfaces, which cannot absorb water, with permeable pavement throughout Main Street, and adding more stormwater retention ponds.

But how to fund the ideas was a major hurdle. Students floated unconventional ideas like requiring flood insurance and even floating millions of dollars in bonds using Tax Increment Financing.

The activity was piloted by Mount Hebron biology teacher Heather Cassetta's students.

Cassetta said she was impressed by how hard students worked to apply scientific analyses to real-life issues.

"This activity allowed them to see this issue from a different lens with a deeper insight," Cassetta said.

Krishna, who posed as a city planner, said the activity allowed him to appreciate the sentimental value of the historic district, a value Krishna said he under-appreciated, as the county balances preserving the town's historic nature with preservation of the safety of the town's occupants.

"I didn't know there were so many different ideas [on] how we think about the situation," Krishna said.

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